(Reuters) - A British Parliamentary committee on Tuesday published a sequence of e-mails which raised questions about the story News Corp’s (NWSA.O) James Murdoch told to House of Commons legislators about what he knew about phone hacking allegations involving the now-defunct News of the World and when he knew it.
In the email sequence, dated Saturday, June 7, 2008, James Murdoch was advised by Colin Myler, then News of the World editor, that the paper’s legal position regarding a legal threat from professional soccer union executive Gordon Taylor was “as bad as we feared.”
Attached to this message was an email exchange between Myler and Tom Crone, the News of the World’s principal in-house lawyer, in which Crone mentioned a “nightmare scenario.”
Crone explained that this scenario related to the fact that “several voicemails” on an email addressed to News of the World reporter Ross Hindley were “taken from” a phone used by Joanne Armstrong, a lawyer for the Professional Footballers Association union, which Taylor led.
The email sent to Hindley, which, in a reference to the News of the World’s chief reporter, was headed “For Neville”, is regarded by investigators and lawyers who have been digging into the phone hacking controversy as one of the first pieces of evidence to reach the public domain demonstrating that phone hacking at the News of the World was a practice which extended beyond a single “rogue” journalist.
Executives of News International, the British newspaper publisher headed by James Murdoch at the time of the e-mail exchange, initially claimed in public statements and testimony to parliament that phone hacking was limited to Clive Goodman, a News of the World journalist who was convicted and jailed in 2007 for allegedly hacking into the voice mails of aides to members of Britain’s Royal Family.
In testimony earlier this year before the House of Commons committee on Culture, Media and Sport, James Murdoch maintained that while he was aware of the existence of some kind of email, he was not informed in 2008 that it constituted possible evidence of widespread phone hacking by News of the World journalists other than Goodman.
James Murdoch’s handling of the phone hacking crisis, in which he suddenly closed the News of the World and then had the credibility of his Parliamentary testimony challenged by former subordinates, has raised questions about his status as presumptive heir to his father, News Corp founder and chair Rupert Murdoch.
Chris Bryant, a Member of Parliament for Britain’s Labour Party who was a target of phone hacking, told Reuters on Tuesday that at a minimum, the email sequence newly published by the committee “says to me that James Murdoch is a remarkably slipshod manager .... He’s been slipshod and News International have been slippery.”
In a letter also made public by the parliamentary committee on Tuesday, James Murdoch told the panel he was unaware of the June 7, 2008 email sequence when he testified before Parliament in July and November.
Murdoch said the evidence published by the committee demonstrates that he replied to Myler’s message, which requested a meeting with Murdoch on the following Tuesday, less than three minutes after receiving Myler’s request.
Murdoch said in his letter to Parliament, dated on Monday, that because he received Myler’s message on a Saturday, this “typically” would have meant that he had received it on his Blackberry.
For this reason, and because he replied to the message so quickly, Murdoch told Parliament, he was ”confident that I did not review the full email chain at the time or afterwards.
“Nor do I recall a conversation with Mr. Myler over that weekend,” Murdoch’s letter continued.
Murdoch said in his letter that he reaffirmed his previous testimony to Parliament that “I was not aware of evidence that either pointed to widespread wrongdoing or indicated that further investigation was necessary.” Nonetheless, he said he wished to “apologize” that this material had “only now come to light” in a late stage of the Parliamentary inquiry.
The Culture, Media and Sport committee is scheduled to publish a report on its phone hacking investigation sometime in the next few months. One issue which sources familiar with the committee deliberations say the report is likely to address is the committee’s assessment of the credibility of witnesses who have testified before it, who, in addition to James Murdoch, have included his father, Rupert, and Rebekah Brooks, former head of Murdoch’s print operations in Britain.
The e-mail sequence sent to James Murdoch was turned over to the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Monday by Linklaters LLP, a law firm which is working with the Management and Standards Committee, a unit News International created to investigate and clean up the disruption caused by investigations into alleged abusive reporting practices pursued by the News of the World.
A spokesperson for News International said the company had no comment beyond the statements made by James Murdoch in his latest letter to the Parliamentary committee. (Additional reporting by Yinka Adegoke in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)